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Mark Thoma on Think Tank Politicization

16 Apr 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma makes a good point in response to my column about the politicization of think tanks:

I think these organizations -- think tanks -- have done great damage to economics. We hurt ourselves enough with the events leading up to the financial crisis, but there has also been a blurring of lines between academic research and think tank research -- some of which is simply not honest -- that has made it appear that there are divisions within the profession that simply do not exist, or that there is stronger support for some ideas than actually exists. The main problem, I think, is the he said - she said presentation of academic work in the media alongside the papers that think tanks put out as though there is an equivalence (or a similarly structured debate on, say, CNN). Much of the think tank work (but not all) is junk and no such equivalence exists, but the work is often given equal footing in the press. One of the reasons I started this blog was the frustration of hearing what economists "believe" (e.g. "tax cuts pay for themselves"), when those beliefs were anything but widely held. But you wouldn't know that reading the paper or watching the news. (I should probably go back and clean up what I just wrote, but out of time so I'll have to leave as is and hope it makes some sense...)

The larger point Mark is making here applies as well to the decline of the news media, which I have also commented on recently. One of the things the right figured out long ago is that reporters and TV producers are lazy and the ones that aren't are too pressed for time to do more than take studies by think tanks or anyone else at face value. They don't have the knowledge, education or resources to do fact-checking or quality control. The best they can do is separate research from institutions deemed reputable from those that are total hacks, quacks and fly-by-night operations.

One consequence of Heritage's breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.

Conservatives also realized that putting out a study saying the exact opposite of a liberal study was sufficient to muddy the water and prevent a reporter from drawing a clear conclusion from the liberal study. It didn't matter that the liberal study was done by a preeminent scholar in the field and the conservative study was done by a glorified intern. All that mattered is that they came to opposite conclusions, thus leading to on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand stories that everyone hates but the media won't stop writing.

Conservatives understand--better than liberals, I think--that most stories are lucky to last one news cycle. If the reporter later decides that the liberal study was really worthwhile and the conservative one was worthless, he isn't going to go back and do another article on the subject. It's water over the dam.

Parenthetically, I would add that the talking head approach to policy debate on the cable news channels reinforces all the negative aspects of this development. Once upon a time, I used to do a lot of cable interviews. At first, I was often paired with people I knew at other think tanks who were slightly more liberal than I am. But because we both shared common facts and knew the limits of what could be demonstrated through serious academic research, we naturally tended to agree with each quite a bit.

Having two guests who agree with each other is the last thing cable channels want; they want their guests to be 180 degree polar opposites. So gradually I noticed that I was no longer being paired with peers from liberal think tanks, but people I had never heard of who were identified as "Democratic consultant" or something like that. Such people clearly knew virtually nothing about the subject we were discussing and were just there to endlessly repeat talking points that someone gave them.

That was bad enough, but over time it got worse. I could see that I was going up against people who had media training. They knew how to filibuster by using more than their share of air time and forced me to use my time responding to their charges at the expense of making my own points. Eventually, I pretty much stopped either doing cable interviews or watching cable news at all.


Don't give the right too much credit, and the left too little.

One of the things the right figured out long ago is that reporters and TV producers are lazy and the ones that aren't are too pressed for time to do more than take studies by think tanks or anyone else at face value. They don't have the knowledge, education or resources to do fact-checking ...

As a life-long political independent who's watched the tax-writing commitees for years, plus all the attendant politics, I've been long amused by how once every few years one poltical side or other other newly discovers the press is lazy and poor at fact checking -- and the other side is taking advantage of it!

Today "the right has figured it out" and is taking advantage of the fact.

But has "the left" not figured it out and taken advantage of it?

Let's look at the brouhaha over the term "death taxes" and all the outrage from the left that Fox News and the WSJ and their right-wing allies would "invent" such a perjorative, rhetorical term for partisan political purposes!

Of course, in reality "death taxes" has been the standard legal textbook term for estate and inheritance taxes since I was in law school 30 years ago, and long before that.

The Tax History Project recently noted this reality quoting from a 1937 Report of FDR's Treasury...


UNIVERSAL ACCEPTANCE: Taxation of the transfer of property at death has been one of the most universally used tax forms in history...

Death taxes constitute a relatively painless method of raising revenue ... death taxation probably has less effect on the individual's activities than do other more immediately pressing taxes...

Effects on social capital are in no way peculiar to death taxes...

Death taxes so severe as to result in a very substantial redistribution of wealth might result in the gradual decrease in the volume of social capital...


States have contended for exclusive use of death taxes chiefly on two grounds, priority and state control of descent...

Death taxes were introduced in a great many of the states...

Death taxes are of two types ... Careful drafting of the will with death taxes in mind can place the incidence of either ...

[etc. etc. etc.]

Now personally I'd imagine that "death tax" terminology and analysis from FDR's own Treasury should be good enough for any modern liberal/Democrat.

But, hey, we all know what happened. Some clever political operative on the left said...

"This term 'death taxes' is polling very badly for us. But maybe we can get rid of it if we pretend it was recently invented by right wingers for strictly partisan reasons. And if we get really really outraged that Fox and the WSJ and the Republicans would do such an awful thing, people will believe us!

"Of course it will only work if nobody checks some pretty obvious facts. But who checks facts?"

And it worked! That guy really was clever! They actually got the WSJ to stop using the term even in totally non-political financial-planning stories. Victory.

Yes, the left made this perfectly conventional term, dating back to FDR's own people, hyper-political by whipping up the bogus story that the right had created it as a political anti-tax ploy -- and got the WSJ to stop using it because it was too political. Kudos!

Now of course "the right" does do such things too. But isn't it interesting how we only notice when the other side does such things? Not when our side does it -- not even when do it ourselves, personally?

Of course the claim...

"the phrase 'death tax' was invented to increase support for cutting or eliminating the federal tax on the estates of the extremely wealthy."

... is totally false -- unless the FDR Treasury invented the phrase with that purpose, and it appeared in 70-years worth of textbooks and legal analysis that followed for that purpose. As the simplest of fact checks from the left would have found.

But when feeling extremely self-righteous and morally superior, and about to win a objective in the political wars, who wants to check facts and risk finding out one is wrong?

Similarly, Krugman loves to go on with anecdotes about how the press engages in "bogus fairness" with offsetting quotes, and balancing opinions, and bizarre qualifications -- that give breaks to conservative politicians.

But he never goes on about how the press does the same thing with liberal politicians ... and in its coverage of business, education, science, charities, every dang thing.

One of my favorite NY Times quotes is from a story on green economics (5/20/97)...

“Virtually everyone agrees that without the natural world, the human economy, and indeed human life, could not exist.”

Virtually? ;-)

The press has always been thus, for everyone. It's always wanted the story that gets readers/ratings/advertisers, and has always been lazy about and poor at fact checking and all kinds of research after the fact.

And all political interests have always taken advantage of that. As have the PR people for businesses, charities, science organizations, universities...

When we notice only the other side of a partisan divide taking advantage, not our own, we are engaging in selective viewing. (Neuroscience might even explain this, "this is your brain on politics".)

"Conservatives understand -- better than liberals, I think -- that most stories are lucky to last one news cycle..."

Liberals understand less? Make me laugh. Why? Lower IQs? Less experience in politics?

On the nomenclature of taxes

On the nomenclature of taxes on inherited wealth, if FDR and his staff used the term "death tax", well, then there have been some mistaken assertions about the coining of the term and the goal of that coinage. It remains the case, though, that "death tax" is misleading, because it suggests taxing people for dying. What triggers the tax is not death, but rather passing on wealth above a certain limit at death. Those are not the same thing, to the extent that "death tax" is a misleading term, we can do better.

As to this bit:

""Conservatives understand -- better than liberals, I think -- that most stories are lucky to last one news cycle..."

Liberals understand less? Make me laugh. Why? Lower IQs? Less experience in politics?"

what we are looking at is a claim based on observation being countered by a claim based in implied assertion and logic. We see that often, but it is not satisfactory. We can simply observe behavior for ourselves and determine whether Bartlett's comment seems to match the facts.

Now, for my own observation - Glass's sneer fails as logic. There are ideas which some groups tend to understand better than others, and lower IQs don't necessarily enter into it. Different experience does, though. Not necessarily less experience, but different experience. If we make the perfectly reasonable assumption that two groups in a similar line of activity but drawing on backgrounds that don't overlap perfectly will behave differently, then it is entirely possible that Republicans would be more aware of some aspects of news consumption than would Democrats.

In particular, a party devoted to preventing good policy from being put in place if that good policy costs a powerful constituent is likely to put great attention on playing the ref. And scoffing at the notion that that could be true also looks like playing the ref. Just about any sort of sneering does.


These things seem to be cyclical. I don't know why. A few years ago everyone said that the left had mastered the Internet through groups like; today everyone seems to think it's the right that has mastered the Internet.

fighting fire with nukes

You obliterated mainstream media to defend thinktanks...
So how to make news educational?

think tanks

I am a former school board member who chose not to run for re-election because of the litmus tests and punishment mentality of our political parties, limited room at the table for rational dialogue, and marginalization of many in the electorate who simply want problems solved. I have been blogging in an attempt to find others who are honest about data and not afraid to be share independent views.

This column is timely to me since I have become increasingly frustrated in discovering just how politicized many think tanks have become (or come to find out, always were) and how too much of the media (and too many politicians) prefer unproductive 180-degrees-apart "conversations." They encourage misinformation, cheapen public discourse and stand in the way of common sense and common ground.

I am therefore encouraged by those like Mr. Bartlett who are finding ways to express themselves openly and honestly. Perhaps if a few more independently inclined media outlets and more elected officials are willing to buck this troubling trend, we might have a chance of preserving productive dialogue and increasing our ability to solve problems. It's a mighty wave to overcome, though.

LOC talk


I gave a talk at the Library of Congress awhile back detailing the history of the media/think tank dynamic that you are discussing:


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